Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the Democrat serving as vice-chair of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, recently expressed how concerned he is that we fully investigate how Russia interfered with our election and to what extent any coordination occurred with the Trump campaign. Warner wants it known that our news was manipulated and that trolls were part of the operation.
Which raises multiple questions: How savvy are Americans about hybrid warfare? Do we understand that it isn’t just tanks and missiles anymore, but concealed subversion? Can we combat new propaganda that is digital and borderless, with no planes necessary to drop leaflets and no radio frequencies required to occupy?
These aren’t the trolls with fuzzy, bright hair that sticks up when you spin them.
Currently, I am reading “The Plot to Hack America” by Malcolm Nance, a former naval intelligence counter-terrorism and intelligence officer (with many other qualifications to speak authoritatively on anything related to spycraft and espionage). Published last October, the book details not just the Democratic National Committee hack, but how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deputies have been working to undermine our democracy. There is much to learn from this book; it’s mind-blowing and drives home how much warfare today looks nothing like it did just decades ago.
Outside of what it took for Americans to get behind the United States entering World War II, it didn’t take much to explain that warships, planes and tanks were the necessary infrastructure. But if we don’t understand how warfare is conducted today, how will we fight back and muster the support — the necessary resources — to protect our democracy?
One of Nance’s recommendations is “national recognition and awareness of the enormity and fully integrated propaganda” we see coming from Russia’s propaganda vehicles, like RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik News, among others. How do we learn not to be manipulated?
The mainstream media is mounting an effort to remind us of the role of an independent press in maintaining a democracy. But we must learn to question what may appear to be popular support or credible information, especially online, where we spend more of our time. We must figure out how these troll farms operate and hone our B.S. detectors. And ask questions, call them out, block or otherwise banish and disrupt their disruption.
As has been reported, these are not just computers that create fake online profiles to spread propaganda; there are people in Russia who go to work every day and pretend to be actual Americans who support Trump and have no problem with his Putin bromance, in between their occasional mundane tweets that provide them some cover as an actual person who gets annoyed when tailgated. You might come across their comments, or read an article they link to, and think to yourself: Here’s a soccer mom like me. Or another Atlanta Falcons fan. Interesting. This is new information. I never looked at it this way.
Troll mission accomplished. If you push it out to your own personal network of actual people that exist, even better.
I’ve come across a few suspicious profiles on Twitter. When the profile picture is a cartoon, the background image looks like a Patrick Nagel painting from the ’80s or has an American flag on it, and their bio reads like random lines picked up from “Hee Haw” episodes and closes with a #MAGA hashtag, I get suspicious.
They may have mastered the technology, but not all of them have figured out how to dial down the corny and the tacky. But if they only know Americans by TV, it makes some sense.
Here’s something else that’s clever: someone who pretends to sympathize with lefty liberals — maybe even pretending to be a Bernie supporter — but who promotes discord, distractions, bad advice and discouragements that divide, ostensibly because they care. “Concern trolls,” who only want the best for our side.
In my own recent experiments, I have learned that accusing someone I suspect might be a troll results in ad hominem attacks in response. Not denials or an indignant, “How dare you …” Not just simply blocking me, which is quick and would do the job for someone who was annoyed at the suggestion and wished to no longer engage. No, I have to get called a few names first.
The people working at the Russian troll farms are trying to make a living and, under Putin’s regime, that can be rough. They aren’t the enemy. Maybe I’m tilting at windmills, but I want more Americans to see what kind of attack we are under, to help us resist. And for Putin to know: We see you.
Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.